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SXSW: Should You Stay or Should You Go?

Did you read Monday's Onion story "SXSW as Cool and as Real as It Gets, Reports Marketing Associate?"

Once again, the satirical site takes aim and takes down its target. South by Southwest mania is upon us, and chances are your social-media channels are already being inundated with dispatches from the Austin music festival. A good friend of mine who works in the industry actually went as far as to "pre-apologize" for it all: "On behalf of the music industry (myself included), I'd like to apologize for just how obnoxious we'll be this week while at SXSW. Extra apologies for any and all usage of the term 'killing it,' gratuitous name-dropping ('Oh, hey, [insert celebrity here]'), photos of long lines into parties, and whining about how tired we are. That said, I have to read your sports talk, and this is our Super Bowl, so we're even."

So, is SXSW really "our Super Bowl?"

These are famous people that Igor Smith saw at SxSW Interactive 2013. See more.
These are famous people that Igor Smith saw at SxSW Interactive 2013. See more.
Nate "Igor" Smith

I don't think so. It would be "our Super Bowl" only if the Super Bowl was attended solely by coaches, collegiate players hoping to get in to the NFL, and industry sponsors like Nike and Gatorade. Though I'm sure they exist, I've never met anyone who was unaffiliated with a band or a component of the music industry who made plans to travel all the way to Austin for SXSW. Many regular music fans typically wait for the band(s) they like to travel through their town, especially around this time of year, when most noteworthy bands are making their pilgrimage to the showcase.

Don't get me wrong. South by Southwest is great. I've been numerous times since 2006 and have always had a good time playing, networking, and feeling perfectly at home within a community of fellow musicians. I've had the opportunity to see some of my favorite bands in very intimate settings. I saw Vincent Gallo walking around once and Billy Bob Thornton another time. But let's face it: There's something compulsory and seemingly obligatory about the decision to go to SXSW, at least in regard to unsigned bands. Every year, more and more bands travel to the musical mecca, hoping to get signed by a major record label or to play a show for Jeff Tweedy that will prompt him to take their band on tour with Wilco.

The reality is somewhat more masturbatory. Here in Arizona, and this is the case nationwide, I'm sure, a group of bands will annually put a mini-tour of sorts together, complete with an unofficial SXSW showcase representing their local scene, and make the 16-hour trek through the desert and high plains to essentially play and get drunk with the same bands they play with on a weekly basis back home. In a different state. There's an underlying air of -- I'll try to tread lightly here -- a misplaced self-importance, I feel, in the delusion that anything other than the aforementioned playing and drinking with the usual crowd will take place.  

We're not saying this guy works in the music business, but we're not saying he doesn't. See more people of SxSW 2012.
We're not saying this guy works in the music business, but we're not saying he doesn't. See more people of SxSW 2012.
Erik Hess

Now, aside from local music scenes from Phoenix, or Fort Collins, or even those four guys from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, throwing their pat-yourself-on-the-back, "We've made it big because we're at SXSW" unofficial parties (where the only people who they're "discovered" by are bartenders serving their friends), there are definitely positive aspects to the weeklong showcase. For instance, playing an official party can certainly help your chances of a record executive being present, and possibly even listening, while your band plays. This is why industry types attend.

If anything, rather than the Super Bowl, this would be more akin to scouting season, with industry reps weeding through countless shitty parties to find the few diamonds in the rough; or at least artists with potential for development. At least that's the South by Southwest I remember. Granted, it's been a few years since my last visit, but all indications are that the primary function of the Austin showcase -- and its increasing corporate presence, #Livmas -- hasn't changed. Instead, perhaps the attitudes of the music industry representatives attending, and the focus of some of the bands making the trip has shifted to depict a more Coachella-like environment.

This isn't a festival, folks. At best, it's a trade show. If you'd like a "Super Bowl," perhaps attend Austin City Limits in the fall; it's for the fans. Don't misread, unsigned bands: There's nothing wrong with traveling to another state to party for a week, hang out with other bands, make some good connections, and perhaps even meet your idol. Just maybe recognize that as the primary directive, rather than viewing the trip as a surefire way to blow up, when you, and the local radio station/promotion company/sponsor throwing the shindig are but needles in a proverbial haystack or -- perhaps more fittingly -- some hay among other hay in a haystack. Be careful, have fun, and play your asses off. Just don't wind up with a broken heart.

See also:

-The Worst Moments from SXSW 2012


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